Perth: Wildflower country

By Maureen McDonald

We arrived in Perth with a simple plan: to hire a car and then follow the whiff of wildflowers across Western Australia. Our expectation that spectacular fields of colour waited across the countryside wherever we chose to wander overcame the need for a detailed itinerary.

The rental agent was less than enthusiastic when we flagged our intention to head north where, it being mid-September, we would likely find the flowers. "Why on earth go north, there's nothing to see, just long red roads," he said. "Go south, that's where the scenery is."

Besides, he'd heard the wildflowers were scarce this year. But, he said, if we must go north, go via the Avon Valley.

The map he had was a reality check. It showed Western Australia hiding Germany, United Kingdom and Japan within its boundaries, with just as much hiding space left over. Clearly, we wouldn't get as far as we thought. So we nominated World Heritage site Shark Bay with its famed wildlife, 830km north of Perth, as our ultimate destination.

The Avon Valley on the Great Eastern Highway proved a worthwhile tip. The Avon River, roaming through rich pastoral land and connecting the settlements that sprang up alongside it in the 1830s, is actually the upper reaches of Perth's Swan River.

Northam, the valley's major centre, is Western Australia's largest inland town.

Nearby York is its oldest. Along with Toodyay, the three towns retain some of the state's finest colonial buildings, town halls, post offices, hotels, stores, flour mills and jails, many of them built with convict labour.

Heading north through the crossroads and byways of the wheat belt we found plenty of hospitable folk happy to chat and point directions. They put us right on the fields ablaze with purple: "They're not wildflowers. They're just a bloody curse." Patterson's Curse in fact.

Still, the intrigue of place names such as Wongan Hills (the Aboriginal place of whispering), Dalwallinu (a place to wait awhile) and Wubin lured us back and forth along relaxed roads through pretty country corridors, all with history but no wildflowers.

Finally we reached Mullewa, 460km from Perth, which wears two hats that suited us perfectly: "Heart of the Wildflower Country" and "Gateway to the North".

And, sure enough, on a gravel roadside not far out of town we came across a colony of the Wreath Flower, looking every bit like its name.

The Tourist Information Centre offered a flower trail map running from Mullewa to Kalbarri via Northampton. But the information person added, "The wildflowers are poor this year," so we opted instead for the direct route to Geraldton where we could pick up the North West Coastal Highway and be on our way to Shark Bay.

A strange thing happened as we settled into the highway. We discovered wildflowers everywhere. Not the fields of daisies we'd been looking for but wattles, myrtles, banksias and proteas with names like Pigface, Old Socks, Smelly Socks, Hooker, Needles and Corks.

These blooms hung in wild profusion from roadside bushes, clung to crevasses in red clay verges, sprang from clumps of heath, disappeared like rainbows into every rise and dip along the road. "No wildflowers this year? You must be joking, they're all around," we assured the lady hanging patchwork exhibits for the district's annual Airing of the Quilts at the Northampton Information Centre.

More such unexpected treasures awaited us in the Shark Bay World Heritage park. First there was a stromatolite colony living at Hamelin Pool, a short detour off the main road. There's nothing pretty about the stromatolites, some of the oldest life forms on earth; what makes them remarkable is their lineage to three-billion-year-old ancestors.

Stromatolites are created from microbe skeletons that build upon each other to form strangely wrinkled boulders. Hamelin Pool's unusually still, salty water means the microbes' predators and competitors cannot survive so the organisms can flourish into stromatolites as they did billions of years ago. A boardwalk with story panels juts over the colony providing a great viewing perspective and protecting the delicate reef-like structures below.

The high salinity is a result of the world's largest seagrass meadows that extend over 4000 sq km or one third of Shark Bay. Growing from the sandy seabed, the grasses flower and pollinate in a similar manner to land plants. Over thousands of years, the meadows have restricted tidal movements in the bay and contributed to sediment buildup. Add in the hot dry climate with high evaporation rates and the sea water becomes very concentrated.

The high salt concentration that suits the stromatolites is also favoured by species of tiny cockleshell which flourish in great numbers creating another local phenomenon, Shell Beach. The beach stretches 60km around the bay and is 10 solid metres deep in shells.

The seagrass meadows play another major role in the park's ecology. They produce an estimated eight million tonnes of grass a year and are the feeding ground for the area's 10,000 dugongs. The endangered dugong, nature's only vegetarian sea mammal, is the creature behind the mermaid myth of ancient mariners. It looks like a walrus, is related to the elephant and is called a sea-cow.

There's more fascinating wildlife at Monkey Mia, especially the bottlenose dolphins that come to commune with humans. Around 40 dolphins visit the shore from time to time, with seven named regulars, including Nicky, Surprise, Puck and Piccolo, coming almost daily.

The wild dolphins cruise the shoreline just beyond arm's reach, coming in only to accept fish offerings from the rangers who zealously guard their wellbeing. The Dolphin Information Centre at the complex has established regulations for interacting with the visitors. Feeding time is flexible but managed and a few lucky tourists are invited into the water for a personal touch.

Monkey Mia has plenty of options for exploring Shark Bay with wildlife specialists. The dugong had piqued our curiosity so we boarded a catamaran for the 2hour cruise in search of this shy, mysterious creature. No promises were made and although we encountered dolphins and turtles, snakes and sharks, the allotted time passed with not a mermaid in sight. Then, just as we turned for shore, the lookout sparked a frenzy of excitement: "Dugong to the left," he said quietly. We floated about for another hour as the strangely translucent mammals dipped and dived just below the surface.

It is a long trek back to Perth so we were soon rolling down the North West Coast Highway again and just past the Billabong Roadhouse we finally found what we had originally come to see: a solitary glade of pink daisies spreading delightful and spiky blooms just a few metres off the roadside. Mission finally accomplished.

Nevertheless, there was plenty more to see during our leisurely drive down the coast:

Kalbarri National Park, 45 minutes seaward of the coastal highway, a dramatic and wild landscape with imposing coastal cliff faces and magnificent gorges carved through sandstone by the Murchison River.

Port Gregory, where wheatfields grow at the foot of huge white sand dunes, and where you'll find the ruins of the historic Lynton Convict Settlement in the foothills above the coast. The settlement was established as a hiring depot around 1853 offering 60 ticket-of-leave convicts as labour for local farmers and miners.

New Norcia, on the Great Northern Highway 132km north of Perth. Originally a mission settlement founded in 1846 by two Spanish Benedictine monks, and named after the Italian birthplace of St Benedict, it is well worth a visit for the imposing Spanish architecture, excellent museum and art gallery and the delicious baking still done by the monks. And it's also famous for its wildflowers.


GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand has direct return flights between Auckland and Perth. See www.airnz.co.nz for details.

VEHICLE RENTAL
As well as major international companies such as Avis, Budget and Hertz, Perth has a number of local rental companies. Try Bayswater Car Rental for a very good deal: www.bayswatercarrental.com.au

ACCOMMODATION
Perth offers a wide range of accommodation. A good place to start is the online Discount Accommodation Market where you can find incredible "last minute" bargains in advance: www.australiahotels.com.au

The Western Australia Accommodation and Tours Listing is a comprehensive directory of accommodation covering all regions and major locations in Western Australia. Check online at www.staywa.net.au

Camping and caravan parks are cheap and cheerful options from about $12 per night for two and are great places for finding out what the locals think about life.

The most comprehensive listings are found at the local district tourist information centres or try: www.caravancampingnetwork.com.au and www.caravanwa.com.au

WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Information about Shark Bay and Monkey Mia is at www.sharkbaywa.com.au.

You can find out about wildflowers at members.ozemail.com.au/~wildflowers or for week by week information check: www.wildflowerswa.com.au/flowering-now.

MORE INFORMATION
The official website for Western Australia is at www.westernaustralia.com.

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